Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Squam story

It ended with a bang. Well, actually it was more of a thud. I had arrived Wednesday for the Squam Artists Workshops, a four day artist’s retreat held at an exclusive “camp” on Squam lake in the woods of New Hampshire. Built in the early part of the 20th century, we discovered that the cabins stood exactly as they were originally built, back in the day when there was no such thing like the modern inventions of INDOOR HEATING and INSULATION. It gave new meaning to their website description of the camp’s “unique rustic simplicity”.

Mind you, it was mid-September and the nighttime temperatures would drop close to freezing. One of several interesting designs of this ghetto, I mean “rustic”, cabin were the thin doors. They weren’t sealed around the frame and the one inch gaps let in a lovely breeze. Behold the adventure of going from the living room to the bedroom: a) unlatch the living room door and enter the cold open air porch, b) close and try several times to re-latch the living room door behind you, c) race from the poor to unlatch bedroom door, work the latch a few times and slam the door behind you. Shiver, curse and repeat in reverse. Do you feel cold yet?

The first two nights we (Morgan, Rebecca and I) attempted to warm ourselves by the fire, but could do nothing except smoke up the whole room and set off the fire alarm. We settled for turns with the hair dryer, blowing the hot air up our shirts and down our pants for the heat. As it turned out, the wood was wet and we were saved by a special delivery of dry wood on Friday. Don’t know I would have survived without that fireplace along with the many hot showers and fluffy down comforters.

I really don’t think those of us who grew up on the west coast understand what a “camp” means in the Northeast. A boyfriend once described who grew up in Maine once described the summers they would spend at their friend’s camp. It sounded like heaven to me, sitting lakeside surrounded with acres of woods. But he shattered that fantasy and by saying it was more like sleeping in a shack and shitting in the woods than any place I’d willing to stay for the summer. But here I was at camp, like it or not, in the cool dark woods of New Hampshire, four nights of for-real-as-it-gets. At least we didn’t have to use an outhouse. And with this thought, here began my effort to focus my zoom lens on the brighter sides of the this experience.

I made myself get up that first morning and brave the cold for a run down a winding dirt trail among all those big thick tall trees. The lovely and brilliant moss greens, vibrant reds and yellows of leaves filled me up. After a forced six week break from a sprained ankle, my legs took hungry long strides and made my lungs burn. Later that morning I felt this strange body and head sensation and eventually realized it was runner’s high! Even though I run so often, and at high altitude, it’s like drinking coffee everyday, after a while you think buzz, what buzz? On that topic, I made the awfully rough decision to drink only black tea on the retreat. And while I would like to brag that I didn’t go near the stuff, I’m pretty sure the ½ pound of dark chocolate-covered almonds I ate pretty much equaled it out. But really I had to eat them, it would have been bad manners since Rebecca had brought them all the way from Switzerland.

When I wasn’t eating the espresso bullets, I did eat real food, lots of yummy food. Anxious for the ringing of the come-and-get-it bell, we would quickly pile into the dining hall and the room would hum with with 150 happy women. I’m famous for being able to down oddly large amounts of food, my excuse this time was valid - I had to pack on my winter layer! Wandering around at meals, my eyes drank in the sight of women in layers and layers of colorful patterned shirts, aprons, skirts, necklaces and rings, funky hats and fingerless knitted gloves. Once we got home, when Morgan showed up in a short blue ruffled shirt over a long sleeve light blue shirt, and we officially christened the look “Squamish”.

And what of the art classes? Day one, Poetry; I’m sure you can understand why the best part of that day was sitting in a rocking chair next to a warm fire. Day Two I nervously hauled my heavy backpack of brand new art supplies to the “Playbook” class (multi-media journal collaging). I'd never touched paints before and was so stoked by the fun wet mess it was. My red acrylic paint over there; my blue block stamp was over here, my water, my brushes, the pens and wax paper strewn about. Day Three I was tired. I skipped the morning class and leisurely soaked in the sun on our private dock and then inside the cabin became obssessed with the fire. Pretty sure that day I got high from the CO2 not the running.

When I finally strolled into my last afternoon class, "Storyweaving", I knew this was what I came for. The concise simple techniques have made a deep and lasting imprint on my writing. We were encouraged us to write about ourselves, to see that our everyday ordinary life might be fascinating, funny and downright interesting to other. Like, for example, who do you know who grew up with a Father who was a Hare Krishna?

Speaking of exciting, let me get back to the thud. There I was packing up Saturday night, rocking out on my ipod when something fell to the floor. It sounded like a longer, slippery fall, and much to my horror I realized mayday we had a bat on the floor! Instead of it rebounding off the floor and flying straight at my face (one of my worst fears), it slid and scraped its tiny wings back and forth on the floor, like making a snow angel. In a panic I was up on the bed screaming a high pitched “Ach! Ach! Ach!!”. My cabin-mates burst into the room thinking the cabin was on fire, only to find the poor little baby bat curled up into a teeny ball the size of a beanbag. Through some thoughtful planning, we decided send take it outside to its resting place by way of the dustpan mobile, as soon as Morgan picked it up we all screamed in unison as it wiggled again. Rest in peace?

But what does it all mean? Why am I telling you this story? I’m sitting here on the plane home wondering the same thing. While there are so many things I took away from this great weekend in the woods, there will always trying to make the best of that miserably cold and “uniquely rustic” cabin. One thing is for sure, if you want to make a real impression on someone (or just a good laugh) – throw them naked in a walk-in freezer. Toss in a marker or two, shove a book of poetry along with a beanbag with wings under the door and yell YOU’RE AN ARTIST, make something great! If they yell back, “god this is fun”, you know you’re in good company.


  1. Man, it was cold, wasn't it ? And I am from Canada (Montreal) and I still found it really, really cold !
    Still...those other crazy, colorful artist chicks (including Judy) warmed me up just enough to keep the art flowing...
    You captured it, Helen !
    Safe and warm landings !

  2. This is a wonderful account of Squam. I am at work and laughed out loud - thanks for sharing your view.

  3. that was great, especially the last paragraph ;)

  4. I can't believe there was a bat in your cabin! eek. The cold wasn't fun, but sounds like you had some awesome classes too! I liked the last paragraph as well. :)

  5. You had a bat? We had mice! Wheee! So glad to have met you in poetry class, Helen. Be well.

  6. Let's see, we had a mouse and I had two spiders in my room - one on my pillow... Yup, rustic. I described it to someone as finding an abandoned cabin with the bed made. And this Florida gal was COLD!

    BUT, I still had a great time even though I fled Saturday after class for a friend's warmer house an hour away!

    I agree, Judy's class was a blast! And it was very nice to meet you!